September 2016: Stradivarius, the Iceman, a splendid weekend in the hills of Umbria

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hidden Italy in September:

Hidden Italy in September:

Unfortunately, as you will be aware, an earthquake (6.2 magnitude) devastated the small mountain town of Amatrice and the surrounding area of southern Umbria on the night of 25 August.  Nearly 300 people were killed (270 in Amatrice alone) and thousands were displaced.  Although the Italian government was quick to react, additional funds are always needed.

Amatrice was famous for its own pasta dish:  spaghetti all’amatriciana (a delicious tomato-based dish, with pork cheek and chilli).  In a brilliant, truly Italian move, this dish has become the basis of a nation-wide funding raising project.  Restaurants throughout the country offer the dish, donating 2 euros to the fund for each portion served, while many towns have hosted mass dinners based on the dish in local squares to raise donations (Torino, for example, hosted over 7,000 diners in one sitting).

Donations can be made directly to the Italian Red Cross via the International Bank Account Number (IBAN):  IT 40 F 0623 0032 0400 0030 6316 81; Payment reason:  Terremoto Centro Italia;  SWIFT CODE:  CRPPIT2P086.

Events in Italy in September:

Events in Italy in September:

On the Trails of Otzi, the Iceman, Senales Valley, Bolzano, until 14 January;,  It’s 25 years since the perfectly preserved mummified corpse of a Copper Age man, subsequently nicknamed Otzi, emerged from the ice of a retreating glacier on an Alpine pass that separates Austria and Italy.  This momentous archaeological and scientific event is being celebrated through a number of initiatives including the Otzi Glacial tour (a trek to the spot he was found at 3269 mts altitude); a less challenging hike following an ‘archaeological trail, with a local guide revealing the story along the way and Heavy Metal, an exhibition on the Copper Age at the Bolzano museum where Otzi now rests.  Check the website for details.

Stradivarius Festival, Cremona, until 9 October,  Violins in all their forms and mediums, from classical to Jazz to Gypsy, will be celebrated in Cremona, a prosperous and very attractive town, south-east of Milan: the home of Stradivarius and Guarneri, Cremona still produces the finest stringed instruments in the world.  The festival features eight concerts and over fifty soloists.  A special feature of this year’s festival will be guided visits of the city’s Violin Museum, led by some the guest musicians, including Britain’s colourful virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy.

Terra Madre (Mother Earth) Salone del Gusto, Turin, to 26 September,  This enormous annual event is one of the most important dedicated to food and gastronomy of the world.  Inspired by the Slow Food movement, Terra Madre has numerous events devoted to the wealth and diversity of global cuisine.  The great innovation of this year’s edition is that it will leave the confines of the Torino Trade Fair grounds and will be dispersed throughout the major sites of this wonderful city:  conferences, forums, markets, lessons, street food, food trucks, cinema, wine and more.

Exhibitions in Italy in September:

Exhibitions in Italy in September:

The Poetry of Reality: the photos of Toni Nicolini, Fondazione Forma Meravigli, Milan, until 23 October,  The Milanese photographer Toni Nicolini died in 2012, leaving behind a rich heritage.  This fascinating exhibition presents over forty years of work that captures the spirit of Italy in the second half of the 20th century as it transformed from the ruins of World War II to the boom of the 50s and 60’s and the counter culture and social upheaval of the 70s, 80s and 90’s.

Splendida Minima: Precious small sculptures in the Medici collection;  Museo degli Argenti, Florence, until 2 November,  The Uffizi Gallery in Florence houses the most important collection in the world of small sculptures in semi-precious stones, carved principally in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, an extremely rare area of glyptic art.  Lost in the Middle Age, this art form was revived in the Renaissance.  This exhibition, the first ever to explore this theme, brings together the entire Medici collection.

Momjiri Giutars, Hotel Ca Pisani, Venice,  These extraordinary guitars are created by the masters Alberto Festi and William Marinelli.  Made from precious woods in sensuous forms inspired the prints Japanese fish, these stringed instruments seem more like sculptures, and are presented as such in this unusual exhibition.

Ai Weiwie:  Free, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, until 22 January,  Florence will present Italy’s first major retrospective dedicated to one of the world’s most celebrated and influential artists, Ai Weiwei.  A dissident artist with a leading voice, Ai Weiwei is known world-wide as much for his challenging contemporary art pratcie as for his political activism.  This major exhibition will include monumental installations, sculptures and objects, as well as videos and photography series.

Hidden Italy weekend, San Gemini (Umbria) an escape to the ‘green heart of Italy’.

Hidden Italy weekend, San Gemini (Umbria) an escape to the ‘green heart of Italy’.

Fortunately, not all of Umbria was effected by the August earthquake.  If you are tired of the tourist throngs in the great Italian art cities this autumn, retreat up to the serenity of San Gemini, a pristine medieval hill-town perched on the edge of the Monti Martani, on the southern border of Umbria, the ‘green heart of Italy’. 

A town of great antiquity, ‘modern’ San Gemini was rebuilt in the Dark Ages out of stones dragged up the hill from nearby Casulae, a Roman city abandoned in the 4th century.  In the 9th century Yemin, a Syrian refugee, preached here with such fervour that he was sanctified and the town took his name.

With its perfectly preserved historical centre, including the double medieval walls which look benignly over the surrounding valleys, San Gemini is classified as one the Borghi piu Belli d’Italia (an association of the most beautiful towns and villages in Italy) but it is a long way from a museum: over one thousand people still live in the old centre and every autumn, the lanes and piazzas buzz to the many international students who study here at the International Institute of Restoration and Preservation Studies.

With its fascinating heritage, fine food and wine, cafes and trattorias, beautiful views, forest walks, waterfalls and Roman ruins, San Gemini is a wonderful place to while away the last balmy days of summer.

How to get there:

Rail:  Take a regional train from Rome. Florence or L’Aquila to Terni and then a local train or a bus (Busitalia) to San Gemini.  Car:  Take the A1 Milan to Rome autostrada and then the Valdichiana or Orte exit and then the E45 state highway to San Gemini.

Where to stay:

Albergo Duomo, is in a beautiful palace in the centre of the old town, once owned by the princes of Santacroce.  It has 38 rooms, many looking out of the picturesque rooves of the historic centre.  Double room from 55 euro per night.

Reisdence Il Barone has four tastefully appointed apartments in the centre, perfect for a family, 80 euros each per day.

B&B Stazione id Posta San Gemini, was once the old postal service station and has charming rooms in the centre.  Double with breakfast at 60 euro per night.

Where to eat:

Taverna del Torchio (Piazza Garibaldi) a buzzy place with outdoor tables in the heart of the old town.  Alimenti di Qualita (Via delle Mura 2).  With the oldest oven in town, Luca Quintili has started to roasted the classic porchetta umbra, as well as focaccia and panini, one of the stars of the town.  Il Verde Olivo (Collemurello) a short drive out of town on a family-owned farm, this lovely little trattoria offers classic Umbrian dishes, including stuffed pigeon.

What to do:

Saturday morning

Explore the town’s extraordinary heritage.  Start by visiting the Abbazia di San Nicolo, a recently restored medieval abbey set in gardens a short walk outside the town walls.  Re-entering the town through the ancient Porta Romana, you should head to the town’s cathedral dedicated to St Gemine.  From here you can visit the austere church of St Francis and then Palazzo Vecchio, which holds Roman mosaics from the 1st century.

You can then climb up the town’s fortress, with wonderful views over the surrounding valleys and visit the Guido Calori Museum, which permanent works by this celebrated Roman artist or the Museum of Earth Science, which explores the seismology that produces the town’s celebrated thermal springs and mineral waters.

Saturday afternoon:

The important Roman road, the Via Flaminia, which connected Rome with Ravenna and the Adriatic coast, once ran through the valley beneath the walls of San Gemini.  One of its most important relics is the abandoned town of Casulae, often referred to as the ‘Pompeii of Umbria’, three kilometres south of San Gemini.  Its archaeological museum is worth a visit on its own.

A marked walking trail leads up from Casulae through forest to the Romita di Cesi, a wonderfully preserved Franciscan monastery that dates from the 12th century.  Monastery is currently overseen by Father Bernadino, who also oversees the very simple accommodation offered at the monastery - there is neither running water not electricity but people queue to stay at the monastery and enjoy the tranquillity of the area.  Guides for this and other walks in the area can be booked at Umbria Cuore Verde (

To finish the day, visit the Azienda Agricula Vallantica, the largest wine producer in the district.  Once owned by Antonio Canova, the celebrated Neoclassical sculptor, the vineyard has a spectacular setting. High on a hill with endless rows of vineyards looking out over the Terna valley.  After a visit and tasting in the cellars, have dinner in the vineyard’s excellent restaurant.

Sunday morning:

In the morning. visit Narni, the Roman town of Narnia, which guarded the entrance to the Nera River valley.  The beautifully preserved town’s cathedral contains the Coronation of the Virgin, a masterpiece by Ghirlandiao, Leonardo da Vinci’s master, as well as a fascinating museum.  The spectacular ruins of the nearby Ponte Augustus, a 1st century Roman bridge, was one of the highlights of the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sunday afternoon:

Visit the Cascate di Marmore, the highest waterfalls in Europe.  A number of marked trails lead up from the valley to a spectacular viewing platform.  For dinner, stop at the marvellously rustic Osteria dello Sportello at Casteldilago and enjoy an infinite array of antipasti, local wine and music.

Alternately, you can enjoy an afternoon of cooking lessons, followed by dinner, in a lovely old palazzo in the heart of San Gemini under the attentive eye of Loredana Auturi, a young chef who learnt her craft in the kitchens of master chef Gaultieri Marchesi.  You can learn local specialities or design your own menu (Percorsi con Gusto, San Gemini).

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